Christian Martyrs

This picture is of an ivory relief which depicts the martyrdom of the forty martyrs of Sebaste A.D. 320. “They were forty Roman legionaries, Christians who could be induced neither by command nor by persuasion nor by torture to renounce their faith. They were exposed naked on a frozen lake, and on the shore great fires were lit and hot baths prepared. A pardon was promised to any of the forty who would forswear Christ and exchange the ice for warmth and comfort. Forty is one of the old sacred numbers and the martyrs prayed that not one of them might weaken and accept the offer. But one of them did do so. He rushed ashore and sprang into one of the baths, but the sudden warmth after exposure was too much for his heart. He died on the spot and so lost earthly and heavenly life at one and the same instant’. But the sacred compliment of forty was after all made up in the end. One Christian legionary, who was not on duty and so had escaped the ordeal, had a dream. He saw angels floating down from heaven with robes and crowns for the martyrs. He knew his comrades numbered forty, but could count only thirty-nine crowns. He woke up, hastened to the lake, threw off his clothes, and ran out on the ice.

Death did not come quickly to the forty: it was three days and three nights before the last of them was dead.” (This account of Christian martyrdom was taken from “The Kingdoms of Christ – The Story of the early Church” published by Thames and Hudson. It was a favourite story of martyrdom that has often been illustrated in Christian art.)

Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire in the first three centuries largely due to the brotherly love and charity demonstrated towards all men as well as to the testimony of the martyrs who endured terrible persecutions without wavering in their faith. At first the Christians were largely ignored, regarded as a sect of Judaism, which was legal. However, it was soon brought into conflict with Rome at the instigation of both Jews and pagans who opposed it for different reasons. Because the Christians refused to worship the ancient pagan deities of Rome, as well as the emperor they were accused of disloyalty to their fatherland, of atheism, of hatred towards mankind, to which was added hidden crimes, such as incest, infanticide and ritual cannibalism. They were also held responsible for all natural calamities, such as plagues, floods, famines, etc.

In many parts of the world today Christians still endure terrible persecution for their faith. It is the duty of those of us who have the freedom to practice our faith openly to stand with our brothers and sisters who are suffering: Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (Hebrews 13:3). We encourage believers in Western Countries to pray for Christians who are suffering for their faith and if possible to offer financial support. More information on the persecuted Church can be found at (Voice of the Martyrs) (Open Door Ministries), for Asia).

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